Rebecca Montacute reports on this week’s Education Select Committee session on value for money in higher education, where the Sutton Trust was invited to give evidence

This week, the Sutton Trust gave evidence at the first session of the Education Select Committee’s inquiry on value for money in higher education. In the expert evidence session, Director of Research and Communications at the Sutton Trust, Conor Ryan, gave evidence alongside the Vice-President of the NUS, Amatey Doku, and the Chief Executive of the Office for Students, Nicola Dandridge.

Questions to the expert panel first focused on disadvantaged students in higher education, and whether the gaps that remain in access and achievement for these students mean that the system requires fundamental reform. Conor highlighted the recent Sutton Trust report, Fairer Fees, which recommended the introduction of means-tested tuition fees and the re-introduction of maintenance grants, to help close the gap in access for disadvantaged students. He also discussed the loan and fee structure for part-time students, and argued that the fall in part-time student numbers since higher fees were introduced shows a clear need for reform for this group of students.

Conor also highlighted another recent Sutton Trust report, Admissions in Context, which found that lowering university offers for disadvantaged pupils by just two grades could lead to a 50% increase in the number of free school meals eligible pupils admitted to top universities. He told the committee that greater transparency in how admissions are contextualised was also important to encourage disadvantaged students to apply to the best universities.

NUS Vice President, Amatey Doku, raised concerns about the attainment gap for disadvantaged and black and minority ethnic students whilst at university. He also argued that universities should not be judged on metrics which penalise them for admitting these students. Nicola Dandridge, from the Office for Students, discussed ways in which the office will seek to improve the experience for students, for example by increasing transparency and the guidance available.

Before the expert session, the committee took evidence from four current and recent students from a range of different backgrounds, including a degree-level apprentice and a mature student who is also a single parent. Following questions from MPs in the committee, the student panel highlighted both positive and negative aspects of their experience of the higher education system, with issues discussed including whether students had adequate teaching time or access to teaching staff, and the value of the facilities which universities provide. There was also a discussion on the student panel concerning what value in higher education really means, with the students questioning whether higher education should be measured by graduate earnings and the return they would get on their investment, or if it should instead be measured by looking at how they developed academically, for example in their abilities to examine and critique arguments.

All students on the panel agreed maintenance grants should be re-instated, and discussed the pressures they had felt to work alongside their degrees to make ends meet. Degree apprenticeships, allowing students to gain a degree without taking on a large burden of debt, were enthusiastically endorsed – but the degree apprentice on the panel highlighted issues of stigma around this route, and the lack of information that is currently available to prospective students.

After a thought provoking discussion, the select committee’s chair Robert Halfon MP brought the session to a close by thanking the students and experts for their contributions. He finished by saying that whilst wonderful things are happening in universities across the country, there is mounting evidence that rungs are missing on the educational ladder of opportunity, and that the inquiry would continue to look at these issues.

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